At Balboa, 1984 isn’t just the name of a book that’s required in English classes. It’s the last year in which the Buccaneers football team won the Turkey Day Game — the Academic Athletic Association’s championship.
On Thursday, they’ll have an opportunity to end their 35-year dry spell and finally bring the trophy home.
A program that was dealt a massive blow at the start of this year when star running back AJ Velasquez was lost for the season with a torn ACL and meniscus is on the verge of a City championship for the first time since the Reagan administration. Between Velasquez’s injury and an 0-4 start, it would have been easy to write the Buccaneers off before they even played a single league game, but they never lost sight of the ultimate goal.
“Of course losing the running back who’s played the position since he was six years old and the glue of the team isn’t something you can replace, but it really was next man up,” head coach Fred Velasquez, AJ’s father, said.
Since AJ went down, Roman Banks became the primary back and a variety of players have adapted to fill his role in the secondary.
“Everybody talked down on us; teams were telling the news we were paper champs,” Banks said.
During those first four games without Velasquez, the Bucs scored just 14 points and were shut out twice, but they did it against the likes of Woodinville — the third-ranked team in all of Washington — and Cardinal Newman, which will be playing in a North Coast Section title game this weekend. While many of their peers were fattening up with wins against lesser opponents, Velasquez’s team played the best competition around.
Starting from a hole and having no expectations is nothing new for Balboa. When Velasquez, a 1989 alumnus, took the job before the 2018 season, he inherited a winless team. Assistant coaches Wylie Ilalio and Alec Williams — both with Balboa in their backgrounds as well — came aboard, bringing back echoes of their days in the program.
“We were to help the kids gain confidence and change the culture,” he said. “When the job was given to me, my nephew Caden DeGuzman didn’t win any games on the JV level or on the varsity level in the first three years.”
DeGuzman, who became one of the team’s top players as a senior, graduated with a class that led the Buccaneers into the playoffs after three straight years of losing and went on to give eventual state champion Lincoln a better fight than any other opponent throughout the season. On Thursday, Balboa gets another shot at the Mustangs, having come even closer to knocking them off earlier this month, losing 17-14 in double overtime on Nov. 9. That game saw the Buccaneers have a would-be touchdown ruled to have been fumbled before the pylon and another 70-yard score called back on a phantom holding call. A pair of safeties kept Lincoln in the game.
“We had three angles of that run and there was no holding anywhere,” Velasquez said. “I also messed some things up with our coverage in the final minute to allow them to kick the game-tying field goal.”
While there may not have been any penalties deserved on the negated touchdown in question, flags have certainly been an issue throughout the year for the Buccaneers. They committed 10 in their semifinal win over Mission, and 12 against those same Bears the week before.
“If we match Lincoln’s discipline, we should come out on top,” Velasquez said. “Just match their discipline and physicality. We have to make sure that we answer everything they try to do and we can put on the show that this city deserves.”
Matching the Mustangs’ physicality in the trenches can be an enormous obstacle, but Balboa has the bodies to do it. Nelson Ropati showed off tremendous brute strength in last week’s semifinal victory, ripping out a ball and rumbling 25 yards through would-be tacklers for a scoop-and-score while freshman Santiago Alvarez — undersized at 5-foot-7 and 195 pounds, but more than skilled enough fundamentally — has handled duties at center all year. Those two, along with brothers Sefania and Sekaria Haro and the rest of the Buccaneers’ roster, have a chance to permanently etch their names in history come Thursday and remove a cloud that’s hung over their program since long before any of them were born.
Lincoln and Balboa kick off at 11 a.m. at Kezar Stadium.